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There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.
    -Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics

There is some sad truth to the old saying that every biographer comes to hate his subject, but Simon Mawer's Glass Room illustrates the danger inherent in a novelist coming to love his subject. The story here begins with wealthy newlyweds in 1930s Czechoslovakia starting out on their new life by building a modernist house--that the author modeled on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Tugendhat Villa in Brno (see above)--that will represent their repudiation of all traditional more and values and the embrace of art and science as the bases for a new sort of society. Even were the husband, Viktor Landauer, not a Jewish industrialist and the setting not a country soon to be destroyed and kept captive in turn by the two monstrous modernist ideologies of Nazism and Communism, the irony of such a silly sentiment would fairly drip off the page. But setting the tale in an archetypically anti-human glass box more or less demands that the rest of the novel unwind in tragic manner. It's a classic case of Chekov's gun--"If you introduce a gun in the first act, you should fire it in the third." Modernism, Nazism, and Communism were, after all, of a piece, and the Landauers of the early portion of the book are eagerly rushing into the abyss that the reader must assume will yawn ever wider in the latter stages.

Instead, while the family is forced to flee, the marriage predictably disintegrates in a house that affords no privacy, and both the Nazis and the Communists take over the building itself, Mr. Mawer treats its physical survival as a kind of triumph (one barely resists adding "of the will"). When the aged widow Landauer returns to visit the house after the fall of the Wall we apparently supposed to share in her nostalgic joy, rather than see the hideous box as a pluperfect symbol of 20th Century evil, every bit as potent in its own way as the swastika or the hammer and sickle. The author would seem to have become so enchanted by the building that he can not follow where the natural structure of his own novel leads. The result is that a novel filled with beautiful writing, that you're likely to race through in one sitting, ends up feeling morally vacant.

My own reaction to the novel was obviously fed by a deep personal loathing of Modernism and informed by such writers as Tom Wolfe, whose Bauhaus to Our House and The Painted Word stripped bare the pretensions of the architecture and art the Modernists foisted upon the world. At one point I even feared I was overreacting, such is Mr. Mawer's reasonable seeming affection for at least his chosen example of the form. Happily, just then Malcolm Millais's exquisite daisycutter of a book, Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, came over the transom to remind me that one can't hate Modernism enough.

Mr. Millais may not quite be the wordsmith that Mr. Wolfe is, but his text is just as devastating and just as savagely witty, and is fueled by the righteous indignation of a professional engineer, which enables him to explain that isn't just that the buildings themselves are ugly, but that they are impractical and have, when built, far overrun their cost estimates, been unpopular with those required to use them, and been nightmares to maintain. Consider, for example, that whatever artistic statement is supposed to be made by the extensive use of glass, the reality is that it invites tremendous difficulties in regulating temperatures for the occupants, or that the flat roofs that give the buildings their utilitarian boxlike effect are anything but useful once snow starts to pile up on them, or that choosing building materials and getting rid of load bearing walls because it suits the artist's vision really just discards millennia of wisdom about what works in practice. The horror stories Mr. Millais tells about how prize-winning plans have needed to be scrapped, about the disastrous consequences of following them, and about the eagerness with which the public welcomes opportunities to pull the monstrosities down makes for consistently amusing reading.

We heartily recommend this one to everyone, but it makes for an especially good corrective for anyone who's read The Glass Room. And we'll leave you with this, Mr. Millais's account of the reality of the Villa Savoye (1928), a house that was supposed to float on air, like the Landauer house in the novel:
This was an example par excellence, of the five points (Le Corbusier's Five Points of a New Architecture)--the perfect, cubically-white, living machine. But what was a modern life like in one of these cubical living machines? Well you had to put up with a building that malfunctioned technically, there were cracks and stains and leaks and condensation and...of course you'd already paid way beyond the initial budget. But some people could cope. Raoul la Roche 'enjoyed living in the villa, despite its many technical deficiencies, such as a noisy central heating system that was never resolved and an ever pending lighting solution.'

But other were less enthusiastic--the Savoye family for instance. Pierre Savoye was a Parisian banker and not a member of the avant-garde. What he wanted was a weekend house in the country for his family. There is no evidence that he had any interest, one way or the other, in modern architecture -- but he chose Le Corbusier to be his architect. The outcome was a disaster. The final cost of the project was far in excess of the budget, there were technical problems, as always, and the house was so uncomfortable for family life that the Savoyes hardly used it. It later served as a military billet for both German and Allied soldiers, then was used as a hay barn by local farmers. In 1959, scheduled for demolition, it was "rescued" by the then French minister of culture Andre Malraux--it is now a historic monument!
That's the non-fiction truth behind the novel.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

British (Post War)
Simon Mawer Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Simon Mawer
    -HOUSE SITE: Villa Tugendhat
    -BOOK SITE: The Glass Room (Other Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOKS: Simon Mawer
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of The Glass Room
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Mendel's Dwarf
    -ESSAY: The Gospel of Leo (Simon Mawer, TW Bookmarks)
    -PROFILE: A new novel set within the looking glass: Simon Mawer's Booker Prize-nominated book set in interwar Czechoslovakia ( Lisette Allen, 12/02/09, Prague Post)
    -AUDIO: Reflections of modern Czech history in Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’ (Rosie Johnston, 10/09/09, Radio Praha)
    -INTERVIEW: Simon Mawer on The Glass Room (Man Booker Prize)
    -PROFILE: A life in books: Simon Mawer: 'I'm a novelist. I don't want to tell the truth. I want to manipulate things as I choose. I want to lie' (Interview by Sarah Crown, 3 October 2009 , The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: One Minute With: Simon Mawer (Interview by Ciaran McCauley, 16 January 2009, Independent)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview With Simon Mawer (Readers Read)
    -VIDEO: Simon Mawer on The Glass Room (BBC)
    -ESSAY: Unsung premiere: Vitezlava Kapralova (Norman Lebrecht / November 19, 2009)
    -ARCHIVES: Simon Mawer (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (Ron Charles, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Anita Brookner, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Philip Oltermann, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Hugo Barnacle, Sunday Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Ian Sansom, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Lesley Chamberlain, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass House (Thomas Cunliffe, A Common Reader)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Jane Shilling, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (KevinfromCanada)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Genevieve Fox's Book Club, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Judith Harris, California Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (John Self, Asylum)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Christy Corp-Minamiji, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Robert Birnbaum, Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Daily Mail)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Howard Swains, Slovak Spectator)
    -BOOK CLUB: Czech history through a glass darkly (Bernie Higgins, 11/22/09, Radio Praha)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Johnnie Craig, Business Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Rosa Anderson, Jewish Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Glass Room (Sandee Brawarsky Jewish Week)
    -REVIEW: of Swimming to Ithaca by Simon Mawer (James Urquhart, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Swimming to Ithaca (DJ Taylor, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of The Gospel of Judas by Simon Mawer (Philip Collins, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Gospel of Judas (Jonathan Shipley, Bookreporter) <
    -REVIEW: of The Fall by Simon Mawer (Zoe Green, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Fall (DJ Taylor, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Fall (Patrick Gale, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of The Fall (Gary Krist, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Fall (W.R. Greer, Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Fall (Robert MacFarlane, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The Fall (Celia S. McClinton , Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW: of The Fall (David Cohen, The Age)
    -REVIEW: of The Fall (James Hopkin, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer (Marek Kohn, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Mendel's Dwarf (Cole Moreton, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Mendel's Dwarf (Francine Prose, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Mendel's Dwarf (Robin Askew, Spike)
    -REVIEW: of Mendel's Dwarf (Donald Schier, Sewanee Review)

Book-related and General Links:
-REVIEW: of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism by Nicholas Fox Weber. (Liam Julian, Policy Review)